Moby-Dick Big Read, The Final Pursuit

Moby-Dick Big Read, The Final Pursuit

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Last Tuesday night, I had the pleasure of participating in the “The Final Pursuit,” a live closing session for the “Moby-Dick Big Read” hosted by Peninsula Arts at Plymouth University. The event was put together by Peninsula Arts director Sarah Chapman and featured a panel discussion, readings, from the novel and a musical performance.

My co-panelists were “Big Read” co-curators Philip Hoare and Angela Cockayne; Anthony Caleshu, professor of poetry at Plymouth University; Zeb Soanes, the “voice” of BBC Radio 4; and musician and author David Rothenberg.

Soanes, who contributed a reading of Chapter 101, “The Decanter,” to the Big Read, started things off with an evocative reading of a slightly abridged version of “Loomings.” Chapman, who provided the illustration for Chapter 120, “The Deck Toward the End of the First Night Watch,” then introduced the session, serving as moderator, offering thanks to the various people and institutions that had provided support for the project, and noting at the outset that the website had received more than 2 million hits.

Philip Hoare spoke about the genesis of the “Big Read” project and its attempt to capture “the sprawling, digressive majesty of the book, which is anarchic and subversive and highly sexualized and highly poeticized.” I discussed the ways in which the novel could be seen as a “global text,” by virtue of its cosmopolitan perspectives and cast of characters, the history of its transformation into a world-renowned piece of literature by critics, teachers, and readers, and the ways in which it has aspired –and sometimes antagonized — subsequent writers and artists (such as those who participated in the “Big Read” project).

Anthony Caleshu, who read Chapter 45, “The Affadavit,” described the ways in which Melville’s use of language in Moby-Dick inspired him to write poetry, arguing that Moby-Dick’s language may well be more poetic than Melville’s later poetry. David Rothenburg spoke about the ways in which our understanding of the whale has been transformed first by the vivid descriptions in Melville’s novel and then by the discovery that humpback whales “sing.”

Following a wonderfully comic rendition of “The Spouter-Inn” by Soanes, Angela Cockayne talked about the process of curating the artwork for the project, asserting that many of the artists were inspired by the novel as a piece of “postmodern” writing.

After a Q&A in which audience members demonstrated their passion for both the novel and the “Big Read” project, Rothenberg closed the session with a performance of his reading of Chapter 79, “The Prairie,” complete with sperm whale clicks, special audio effects, and live clarinet. (Cockayne described Rothenberg’s contribution to the project as the one that generated the most controversy because of its innovations.) He followed the reading with a performance of one of his compositions, a duet for clarinet (performed live) and humpback whale songs (recorded). Rothenberg’s book Thousand Mile Song (2008) blends art and science in its approach to whalesong.

“The Final Pursuit” was followed by a screening of Elmer Clifton’s classic silent film Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), with a new piano accompaniment by composer Ignacio Brasa, which was commissioned for the event.

The film’s title is drawn from Psalm 107 23;24, which appears as a title card during the film:

Those who go down to the sea in ships,
Who do business in great waters,
They have seen the works of the Lord,
And His wonders in the deep.

Here’s a description of the music from a flyer distributed at the event.

The piano music that will accompany this evening’s screening of Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) is a combination of live improvisations and fully composed themes that draws upon different styles and genres. John Ireland’s song “Sea Fever” (1913), set to a poem by John Masefield, is used as a point of departure to develop themes that are associated with different characters and scenes in the film; for example, a chorale-like texture, based on the piano accompaniment from Ireland’s song, depicts the religious character of some of the scenes, whereas a lively modal melody represents the character played by Clara Bow, Dot, the mischievous granddaughter of the respectable whaler Charles W. Morgan.

Although the rest of the musical material does not refer directly to any composition in particular, it can be related to different historical styles (particularly Romanticism and impressionism). Several themes and motifs provide a frame for the improvisations that articulate the narrative of the piano accompaniment, and help to differentiate the characters. The music will respond to the structure of the film in terms of directionality and continuity.

Brasa, who holds degrees in Piano Performance from the Conservatoire of Salamanca in Spain, Musicology from the University of Salamanca, and Advanced Musical Studies front eh University of London, watched the film on a video monitor as he played. The music concluded with a vocal rendition of “Sea Fever”:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship ship and a star to steer her by.
And all the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call, that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray an the blown spume, and the seagulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the winds like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

— John Masefield (1913)

Down to the Sea in Ships is available on DVD. The original music was by Henry F. Gilbert.

Before and after the Plymouth event, we discussed ways to build on all the excitement that has developed around the “Big Read.” The site and its associated Soundcloud and iTunes accounts will be maintained for at least a year. (Wouldn’t it be great if someone would make a donation that could endow it!) There’s talk of assembling some of the artworks and audio recordings into an international touring exhibition. There might be some kind of ebook or app that would make the materials useful as an educational tool.

I’ll be continuing to blog regularly about Moby-Dick and doing what I can to assist Hoare and Cockayne to keep the project going. If you have any suggestions about how to extend the “Big Read,” please leave a comment below.